Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Peripeteia held their first event, Perfection: A Discussion with Baumann, Schwartz and Hungerford on Tuesday. The discussion focused on the notion of perfection and its implications.
The topic proved to be popular with the Swarthmore community: five minutes before the lecture started, Sci 101 was packed with students, faculty, and staff.
Victor Gomes ’17, one of the founders of Peripeteia, started the session with introductions of the three speakers: Professor Peter Baumann from philosophy, Professor Barry Schwartz from psychology and Interim President Constance Hungerford, who teaches art history.
President Hungerford was the first to speak. She framed perfection as a process-oriented concept, not an absolute one. She said: “It’s wonderful to pursue perfection, but I try not to get hung up on what the absolute goal is.” Using the Renaissance artist Raphael as an example, President Hungerford said that even artists did not labor endlessly over one particular painting, but instead, they derived personal lessons from the mistakes they made.
“If life were perfect, it wouldn’t be,” Professor Baumann started off his opening statement with a quote by Yogi Berra, to the great amusement of the audience. (It was actually a slight misquote; the actual quote was “if the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be”) He believes that failure has a integral part in our lives. “Imagine a life that is completely successful. This would be boring. The person that is successful would be unfortunate,” he said. While Swarthmore students, ever eager for results, may disagree, Professor Baumann thinks that even though we aspire to be successful, there is no reason for us to desire never ending success.
Professor Baumann also touched on a topic that would prove to be the recurring theme for the rest of the lecture: the meaning of the word perfect. “If I ask a friend, what do you think of my cooking? And he says, oh it is perfectly fine. Then it is not very good is it?” he said to the laughter of the audience once again. We’re sure it is not that bad. Channeling his expertise in philosophy, he then brings up Descartes, and the French philosopher’s definition of perfect: “maximum goodness.” Yet Prof. Baumann expressed skepticism at this definition: “Is there really such a thing as a perfect roommate?” he asked, “Should we really believe that?” He believes we tend to think that there is a cap to how good or perfect something can be, but this cap doesn’t really exist.
Taking a break from the meta side of things, psychology professor Barry Schwartz talked about perfection as it manifests in his studies of perfectionism. He talked about neurotic perfectionists who beat themselves up when they did not achieve their unreasonable standards, and how perfectionists are never satisfied no matter how good they do. And due to that, he believes a perfectionist culture fosters people who are overly cautious. “Perfectionism is the enemy of progress,” he said. Even in the academic field, people are so afraid of being wrong that they pursue safe problems with safe solutions. “This leads to the study of the trivial.” But before he ended his opening statement, he affirmed the importance of having high standards, adding that we should “appreciate that [perfection is] unrealistic” and take satisfaction from achieving close to the perfect standard.
After the opening statements the audience took turns asking questions and engaging the speakers. What was originally a lecture turned into a giant seminar. Questions on the definition of the word perfection featured most prominently. A student proposed perfection as an emotional concept. Two Chemistry professors pushed perfection as viable in scientific systems, like in the case of a perfect circle, or a perfect bottle of water. Someone even defined perfection as symmetry. But like most intellectual discussions in Swarthmore, no one definition was agreed upon.
Despite the atmosphere of friendly disagreement, almost everyone in the lecture hall did agreed on one thing: that perfection as a concept is ever changing. “I find it intriguing that people define perfection as an absolute when it is always changing.” said President Hungerford. “The better is always possible,” said Professor Barry Schwartz. “Think about it. It’s absurd.” concluded Professor Baumann.
At the end, Professor Baumann gave a tip to audience, many of whom may be afflicted by the Swarthmorean variant of perfectionism: “You don’t need the notion of perfection, just take your task seriously, and understand the nature of the task.”
After the session, The Daily Gazette talked to the founders of Peripeteia, Victor Gomes ’17, Owen Weitzman ’17 and Karl Palmquist ’17. Having expected a crowd of around 40 to 50 people, the turnout of close to a 100 people caught them by pleasant surprise. Expressing gratitude to the professors heading the session, Palmquist said, “They did a great job and we really appreciate them coming. The crowd seemed really engaged. The showing of both faculty and students and even staff, shows what a diverse group this attracted, which was really what we were hoping for.” When asked about the possibility of external speakers, Weitzman expressed Peripeteia’s initial focus to bring out what usually are not heard here at Swarthmore before inviting external speakers.
Gomes then outlined the plans Peripeteia has for the future, listing a few possible topics of future discussion that are in the works: ’Are we in the golden age of TV?’, ’Love Romance and Attraction’, and ’Can you sin in a video game?’ It seems like Swatties will not be lacking in intellectual discussions in the coming semesters.
Those interested in asking a question or proposing a discussion topic for Perpeteia’s next discussion may email SwatPeripeteia@gmail.com